The Cowardly Cavy Caper

Since Kathy and the kids have been away, it has fallen to me to serve as primary caregiver for Martin, our Guinea Pig. Martin lives in a cage in the mud room, and looks up hopefully whenever anyone passes by (it is actually a fairly heavy-traffic area). Now that the family is away, his days are a bit quieter, and I expect he gets a little bored.

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Don’t let that innocent expression fool you.

Guinea pigs are strange creatures, driven almost exclusively by the twin passions of consuming and eliminating food. Not far beneath the surface, however, lurks a strong desire to explore the world through the art of nibbling. I worry about Martin sometimes, thinking he doesn’t taste enough of his surroundings … he’s sort of a homebody in that way. And so, when it came time for me to mow the lawn (again), I guessed that he might enjoy being outside in the grass and bright sunshine. Our backyard is fenced and Martin is hardly a long-distance sprinter. “What could possibly go wrong?” I wondered.

It turns out that the cavy (the shortened form of Cavia porcellus, the scientific name of a Guinea Pig) and the modern lawnmower don’t mix. Don’t panic … I didn’t hit him with the mower; this is not that kind of blog. I took great care to keep at least 30 feet away from him … I didn’t bring him out until I had mowed a wide swath of the backyard. Even though I was quite some distance away, Martin cowered away from the noise of the mower and sought shelter by pressing himself up against a small vent in the foundation. “Fine,” I thought, “when I’m done cutting the grass, he’ll get over it and maybe he can enjoy some clover.” The next time I passed by, Martin was gone without so much as a squeak. I felt sure I would have noticed any large birds of prey descending on him, and the yard was empty of small furry things. “Now where has that rascal gotten to?” I fumed.

Close examination revealed that the wire mesh in the crawlspace vent was not firmly fixed. I deduced that Martin, in curiosity or panic or sheer contrariness, had pushed on the mesh and forced entry into the crawlspace below the house. What possessed him to do it, I don’t know, but he seems to have jumped down at least two feet into the dark, damp space between the house and the ground. Personally, I would have taken my chances with the lawnmower, but I guess it takes all kinds. Looking through the vent, I could see his beady little eyes looking back at me from the dubious safety of the crawlspace … he seemed a little smug, I thought.

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Here’s a picture of the time Martin cleverly hid himself in my shoe, and then couldn’t get out. The kids had a hard time freeing him — Guinea Pigs don’t cooperate well when they are panicking.

I stuck my arm down through the hole (barely large enough for someone with biceps like mine) and waggled it about hopefully, determined that if I caught even a whisker, Martin was coming out. Sensing this, the wily Guinea Pig kept just out of reach, and I managed to scratch up my arm quite badly on the sharp edges of the wire mesh. I thought I heard him snicker. You’ve reached a new low point in life when a Guinea Pig snickers at you.

Visions of tetanus dancing in my head, I sat back and pondered. Although Martin is a bit of a bother, he is well-loved by the children, especially Rachel. It seemed that I had only a few options:

  1. Let Martin starve to death under the house.
  2. Try to entice him out with blandishments and carrots.
  3. Establish an official policy such that Martin’s new home is under the house.
  4. Go in and get him.

A member of the rodent order, cavies (rhymes with ‘rabies’, now I wonder why that popped into my mind?) will tend to favor dark, tight places. When permitted, Martin will hide under anything, the darker and more screened from sight, the better. Not too long ago, he escaped Rachel and hid between the backyard fence and an old dog house left by our landlord. The kids tried various enticements to get him out (including lettuce and clover) but he craftily seized their offerings and scuttled back into his newfound lair. Eventually, they managed to catch him, but I felt that my prospects were poor, matching wits against him in this manner.

So, how to get him out of there? I am an extreme claustrophobe, and the entrance to the crawlspace, although technically large enough for my bulk, was comparatively tiny. “Maybe he would crawl out on his own”, I speculated, somewhat plaintively. Taking two five-foot fence boards, I laid them down, one through the vent and one at the entrance to the crawlspace, forming cute little ramps or walkways that he could use to crawl out, if the mood struck him.

Figure the odds of that happening. I finished mowing the lawn, and still, no Martin appeared. I put his little house in view of the top of one of the ramps, hoping that if he did crawl up the ramp, he would see his beloved home and scuttle into it. I placed his food dish nearby, and rolled some of his food pellets down the ramp hopefully. I looked at the diminutive crawlspace access panel again, and shuddered.

Some years ago, a friend offered to help me install phone lines in my new house in the Duckabush. Using my nearly-forgotten Army low-crawl skills, I spent a few entertaining minutes ‘helping’ to run the lines beneath the house. What had seemed a modest-sized house from above became a mansion below … it gave me a new perspective on the generous proportions of our home. Whenever I would begin to feel panicked by a sense of the house falling down and trapping me beneath (which was most of the time), I would look over my shoulder at the comforting bright rectangle of light framed by the access panel for reassurance.

At some point my friend left a pair of wire cutters at the furthest corner under the house. Not wishing to abandon them, even though we had already crawled out and dusted ourselves off, he prepared to re-enter the crawlspace. Feeling responsible and grateful for his help, I gathered my courage and insisted that I be allowed to retrieve them.

As I traversed the space under the house, I began to imagine all kinds of terrible things. How well did I know this guy, anyway? Suppose he is actually a diabolical fiend, and this is his chance to trap and bury me alive? What if the house is unstable on its foundation, and suddenly settles, pinning me under some massive beam? Suppose I have a seizure or heart attack, and cannot be retrieved? Is it really true that there are no poisonous snakes on the Olympic Peninsula? I had not yet reached the halfway point before the panic overwhelmed me, and I scurried for the exit like a terrified Guinea Pig escaping, say, a mower (except in the opposite direction). “I’ll buy you new wire cutters!” I glibly promised in horror, as I extricated myself from the darkness and savored the feel of sunshine on my face. My poor friend had to crawl the 60′ under the house to retrieve the wire cutters himself.

As the afternoon waned, the idea of leaving Martin in his new habitat began to seem more attractive. “Maybe he could live down there,” I mused. “We could put food and water down through the crawlspace door, and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about letting him starve to death.” But I wasn’t sure that the floor of the crawlspace was flat … for all I knew, he had fallen into some cavy-sized pit and couldn’t get out. I imagined my oldest daughter’s shock and condemnation when she returned from Michigan and discovered that I had permitted her beloved pet to starve to death … Rachel can be quite stern when she thinks she holds the moral high ground.

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Would you want to go up against this girl if your conscience wasn’t easy?

“Maybe I could get another Guinea Pig …” I speculated resourcefully, remembering a similar ploy in the Steve Martin movie, My Blue Heaven. But Martin (our Guinea Pig, not Steve) is a fairly unique specimen, and is just cheeky enough to come wandering out once I had committed myself to the dishonest course of passing off the new cavy as the genuine article. I imagined facing the tribunal of my older three children:

Joshua: “So, this is Martin, but this is also Martin?”
Me: “Umm, well, er, isn’t it possible they are both named Martin?”
Rachel: “Daddy, are you telling a lie?”
Daniel: “How can you punish us for telling a lie if you tell them?”

Daniel is often alert for those little inconsistencies. OK, maybe some other plan would be better. I racked my brains, but came up empty.

There was nothing for it … someone was going to have to go in and fetch that varmint, or at least give it the old ‘college try’. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be a four-year college? What about the less well-known ’3rd grade try’ or the ever-popular ‘halfhearted parent-that-doesn’t-want-to-die-trapped-under-the-house try’?

By this time I was engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, which is moving boxes from one side of the garage to the other.

(Parenthetically, I feel that my boxes are occasionally bored by their immovable state, and so I like to air them and give them a new perspective on life … sort of like helping them to ‘think out of the box’, as it were.)

I began to watch for passing children whom I might bribe to go under my house and fetch Martin, although I wasn’t sure how I could explain that to their parents:

Me: “So, [long explanation involving much hand-waving], what do you say? Five bucks for trying, ten bucks if you get him.”
Neighbor child’s parent: “So let me get this straight. You want to send my child to crawl around in a dark, potentially glass, nail or rat-infested crawlspace, under a house that you don’t own, to retrieve a stupid Guinea Pig that you’re afraid to go and get?”
Me: “Um, well, not afraid exactly, it’s just that I am kinda big to be crawling around under there …”
Neighbor: “Let’s go home, Johnny. Maybe next year we’ll get a good neighbor.”

As the shadows lengthened, I began to panic. How could I face my children, who had trustingly committed Martin into my care? (Practically Rachel’s last words to me had been, “Take good care of Martin, Daddy!”) I gathered my determination and changed into my least-favorite pair of jeans, all the time imagining the variety of terrible fates that awaited me under the house. As a precaution, I called Kathy’s friend Julee with instructions to send her husband over to rescue me if I didn’t call back in 15 minutes. She said she would set her timer, which I found encouraging on several levels.

Armed with a flashlight and a plastic bag, I wedged myself through the access door and began crawling along under the house. “Martin! Martin!” I called, trying to keep the rasping menace from my voice. I figured he would back into some narrow pipe and taunt me with his whiskers, after forcing me to crawl the full length and breadth of the house. Surprisingly, he was curious about my flashlight, and sauntered toward me, until he was just out of reach. Showing his true colors, he leapt away when I reached for him, staying just outside my grasp. His plan was obviously to tease me in this way until he could retreat into the aforementioned narrow pipe or other sanctuary.

It turns out that I am smarter than the average Guinea Pig (or perhaps Martin is substantially below-average). The fence board that I had shoved down through the vent was right there in front of me, and I seized it with glee. Now my reach was extended by five feet, and Martin was not prepared for this sudden technological advance. Remembering the scriptural injunction about not letting the right hand know what the left hand was doing, I craftily used the board in my right hand to scoop Martin toward the questing fingers of my left hand. Dropping the flashlight and pinning him to the ground, I stuffed him into the plastic bag and low-crawled laboriously for the access panel, chortling evilly for effect. Martin thrashed dramatically, but his heart wasn’t really in it … he was beaten, and he knew it.

Emerging mud-smeared but victorious, I put Martin in his cage and changed my clothes, flush with the heady triumph of my accomplishment, and relieved that I could face my children again. I called Julee to let her know that I required no rescue, and treated myself to a Caffeine-free Diet Coke.

Today I was thinking, maybe I should bring Martin into the garage with me while I am working there. “What could possibly go wrong?” I mused.

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Shaving with Grandad

Grandad has always been a big favorite with all the grandchildren. This began with Joshua and continues on with each child. Daniel was particularly close to my dad before we moved to Washington. I remember picking up my folks from the airport when they first came to visit us in Seattle. Daniel took one look at my dad and burst into tears. I think he hadn’t realized until then how much he missed him.

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He’s not crying now!

Often my mom will be on the phone with the children and before they even say hello they ask her, “Where’s Granddad?”. Ah, to be so adored.

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For some, a razor is optional

At some point Daniel caught on to the fact that he could have some one on one time with my dad during Shaving Time. Granddad lathers them both up with shaving cream in front of the bathroom mirror and they “shave.” Daniel thinks this is great fun. Not to fear–he uses a razor with a cover on it. After they get a clean shave both Grandad and Daniel put on a splash of aftershave.

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Expecting an endorsement call from shaving cream companies any moment, now.

They’ve been doing this for years now. This summer in Texas, David caught on to the fun of the moment and joined the Men. So of course, during our Michigan visit this October they had to make sure to get in some shaving time with Grandad. It wasn’t until some time had passed and I noticed a strange quiet around the house that I realized the Men had an extra person joining them in the Shave Time. Oh dear!

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Who gets to clean this up, I wonder?

Some moments have to be captured on film.

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Always dainty even in “manly” pursuits

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Sticky Fingers at 35,000 Feet

With combined frequent-flier miles (some graciously donated by my folks) the five children and I were able to fly to Detroit this month to join my family in celebrating my brother’s wedding. It is not an trivial matter, flying with five children, as you can well imagine. The three boys and I went to Texas in August and had not one, but two layovers. It was an extremely long flying experience (both ways) especially for such a short visit (less than a week). It did, however, result in many miles accrued for our frequent-flier memberships. It also made me very confident about dealing with a ‘short’ trip to Michigan of only 4.5 hours. Really, how bad could it be? We have this spiffy portable DVD player which makes flying much more entertaining. I traveled with Tim’s old laptop so I could watch movies or write if I desired. I even had Tim load a movie on to his MP3 player. I was set.

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Don’t they look sweet? What adorable children!

This time Tim was able to get a gate pass and accompany us to our departure gate. I guess I looked a bit overwhelmed with five squirmy, active children. They were probably so glad someone was willing to claim us and help us so they didn’t have to feel responsible. I loaded all the kids up on Dramamine before we boarded. The four older children swallowed it fine but Sarah decided to chew it. We’d learned on our last flight that it was NOT a chewable medicine (tastes awful). The other kids were all yelling at Sarah to drink her juice, take a bite of a cracker, something. It was funny. She just scrunched up her nose and kept chewing. She made a face, finished the pill and then calmly drank her juice. She’s obviously tougher than the rest of us.

As always, I dressed the children in matching red shirts, so they could be easily found if they were somehow separated from us. For some reason, Tim didn’t wear a red shirt as he accompanied us to the gate — can’t imagine that he would have wanted to distance himself from us or anything.

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… and now for the un-posed picture showing the fighting & arguing …
We were in the BACK of the plane (row 44) so we took advantage of their early boarding time — I figured they wouldn’t hassle me as they board those back rows first plus I’m sure I looked just a wee bit stressed handling back packs and lap top bags and assorted baby blankets. Thankfully we can’t really see ourselves during those moments. “Hold on to your sister’s hand. Don’t drop that bag! Wait, wait, not yet. Okay, keep walking. Don’t stop, there are people behind us.” The only thing more awkward is trying to hold a baby at the end of the walk way while closing up the stroller. I think one time I actually handed one of the children to a complete stranger while I found the clasp on the stroller. Ah, the things we are driven to in times of stress. On this night the last thing I saw was Tim waving to us sweetly as he watched us board the plane. For some reason it was very touching to see him standing there loving us.

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“Round up the usual suspects”

Joshua and Daniel fell asleep almost immediately. Rachel settled down to look out her window but David and Sarah were full of energy. They enjoyed a lollipop which was a nice diversion but gave them sticky hands. Since I’m one of those awesome, plan-ahead moms (I wish) I had some cute apple-scented hand wipes in my bag (out and ready to use). I quickly disposed of the remains of their candy and wiped their hands down thoroughly. Sarah was cheerful but a bit wiggly. I finally pulled her across the aisle to sit with me and Daniel. She was fine there. David, however, began to lose his ability to stay quiet and calm. It turns out my careful wiping of his hands had left a nasty residue on his comfort, sucking fingers. This was a BAD mistake as he proceeded to let everyone in our area know how upset he was. We were in the middle of taking off so I couldn’t take him to the bathroom to rinse his fingers. I didn’t have any water with me on hand so I was left to (very effectively) say things like, “Quiet now, David. Just a minute, honey, I’ll help you. Okay, I hear you, we all hear you. It’s okay.” Finally I just threw caution to the wind and slipped across the aisle to sit with him. He settled down fairly quickly and went to sleep.

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Joshua enjoys a well-earned respite

They all slept the rest of the entire flight. It was a nice, empty flight so we had lots of room. Daniel and Sarah had one triple section to themselves, David and Rachel another and Joshua and I the last. We could all stretch out. When we arrived Joshua sleepily said, “That was the best flight I’ve ever been on.” Ha! He must have slept just fine. We didn’t watch a single movie or read any of the books I packed. Well, better to be prepared then bored and screaming. I’m sure everyone around us would have agreed with that statement.

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Daniel, the world-weary jet-setter

Of course, it was 3 in the morning WA time and David and Sarah were not so thrilled with being awakened. David cried and cried. I held Sarah but couldn’t get through the aisle with the two back packs on my shoulders. David was weeping (fairly quietly at this point) in front of me. The older kids had long since walked ahead of me. Finally the nice college-aged man behind me offered to carry one of the bags so I could at least make some progress forward. David cried the entire length of the plane, on the walk way and up until the doors of the check-in gate. At some point Grandad picked him up and carried him. The next time I caught his eye, David smiled this innocent, content smile. Argh! It was wonderful that Mom and Dad were able to meet us at the gate and help with all of our carry-on’s.

A successful voyage!

Whew. We’ll see how the return flight goes. This blog (which was intended to be a short little paragraph) has grown quite lengthy. Hopefully the cute pictures make things bearable.

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Birthday 39

It is a cool and dreary Friday afternoon, and the train is nearly full. Like many others, I hate fighting the southbound traffic on Fridays, which is usually worse when the roads are wet, and so I made sure to take the train today. I feel a little let down, because it was my birthday today, but there was nothing particularly special about it (at least so far).

Traditionally, I always take my birthday off from work, ever since I was scheduled to work at Holiday Inn on the evening of my 17th birthday, and decided to quit as a birthday present to myself. I have often joked that it is a warning sign to any employer if I don’t take my birthday off … they ought to start looking for a replacement. I think this may be an exception to that rule, since I have so little time off accrued, and much of it is spoken-for next summer. Having been unemployed for so long, I expect I’ll think long and hard before quitting any job.

This morning I was awakened before my alarm by a heavy, pounding rain. Here in the beautiful Northwest, we prefer rains that waft in as a gentle mist, keeping the foliage green and the reservoirs full, yet not seriously inconveniencing anyone. It is a courteous, gentlemanly rain, not like that brash, villainous rain they get in the Southeast.

But there is nothing courteous or gentlemanly about a rain like this morning’s, especially one that wakes me at 5:20 am. It is certainly true that I do not sleep as well with Kathy away. I roll around all night in a luxury of space that I simply do not deserve, and my conscience knows it and keeps my sleep uneasy.

There is a stark contrast between my daily schedule and that of the rest of my family, these days. As a reader might suppose from reading this blog, my life could be described by some as being comprised of long periods of boredom relieved by short periods of ennui. My work, fascinating though it may be to some, does not lend itself to epic story-telling, and my off-hours are spent mostly in quiet pursuits, such as reading or playing computer games. Insomniacs Anonymous has frequently sought me on as a guest speaker, and I understand that an MP3 file of my famous lecture on the relevance of IMS DB/DC COBOL programming is a popular download among those suffering from severe sleeplessness.

Kathy, however, is at the hub of all that is exciting and interesting, as her brother’s wedding preparations near completion and relatives flock in from all corners of the globe. I keep trying to persuade her to write a blog entry, but she cannot seem to tear herself away from the events of the day long enough to reflect. I understand that a power outage has struck the hotel where many of the out-of-town visitors are staying, and that some relatives are missing, presumed, well, missing. My children have joined Grand-dad in a frenzy of last-minute preparation of the Thornhollow grounds, but further details are not available.

Instead, I’ll regale you with tales of the course I am taking. In a partnership with the University of Washington, my employer offered a series of “continuing education” courses to those of us who require that sort of thing. Although my first choice course was cancelled, I did manage to enroll in another course, and spend three hours of my Friday afternoons across town listening to lectures about XML.

As it turns out, this is subject matter to rival my gripping IMS DB/DC discussion, and I find myself glazing over almost as soon as I settle in to my seat at the lab. To make matters worse, food and drink are banned from the classroom, so I am unable to jolt my system with a healthy swig of Diet Coke. From time to time I stagger out and take a gulp from the container I secret outside the classroom … I feel like some kind of derelict hitting the bottle. Maybe I should get a flask or a brown paper bag.

Recently the professor took a survey, and I had the opportunity to comment that I found the pace “way too slow”. It would seem that others agreed, because the instructor spoke with much more animation today and we were granted four hands-on exercises instead of the usual two. I suggested that he ask more questions, and so I cudgeled my molasses-filled brain and tried to actually answer when he did, in fact, ask. As with many things, you get out what you put into things … once I began to take a more active interest, I found myself more able to stay awake.

I had a lovely visit with my parents last night … strange to eat dinner & dessert with just the two of them … there was even a substantial amount of the Black Forest Cake left over! This would certainly never have happened if my horde of children were around … as it was, Dad and I put a brave face on it and each suffered through two pieces of cake. My Mom (who claims she ought to know this kind of thing) insists that I was born on the 6th of October. She hints that the doctor who delivered me was a bit on the inebriated side, and probably forgot to fill out the paperwork until he recovered from his hangover. Dad, ever the diplomatist, suggested we celebrate on the 7th as a sort of a compromise, and so I was treated to a birthday dinner and window-shopping excursion.

Thanks to my self-indulgent nature, I already have everything I could possibly want, and a fair number of things that I don’t want (as witnessed by the piles in our garage). I seem to be a difficult person for whom to buy a present.

I had planned to watch a DVD on my laptop today on the train-ride home … got the case out & opened it up … some fiend had put the case back but left the DVD in the player! Imagine my annoyance. Well, actually, readers of this blog probably know all about annoyance, as they hopelessly sift through the blather hoping for an occasional interesting word. I’d blather on, but the train seems to be arriving in Tacoma.

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